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Five for Five: Rivalry Week

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New for the 2019-20 season for Isles Blog, our Rob Taub each Monday will give you his thoughts on five important things to key on for that week’s games for the New York Islanders.

It might be overstated, but for the Islanders, this week might be the biggest one of their season as they head towards the All-Star break and into the home stretch.

For one, they will finally get their first look this season at their improved, but still re-building neighbors from Manhattan, the New York Rangers. The Islanders have dominated the Blueshirts in recent years but split the season series at two games apiece a year ago. The two teams meet tomorrow night at MSG and Thursday on Long Island for the first time since March of 2015; both teams will also see each other again another eight days from now. The Isles will also see the Red Wings, Capitals and Hurricanes, two of them on the second half of a back-to-back.

So five games in seven days. And one thing is certain even with how last week unfolded for Barry Trotz’s team — winning in any of these games won’t come easy.

A few things of note heading into this string of games for the Islanders: Anders Lee has two goals in his last three games; Mathew Barzal broke a seven-game scoring drought with his tying goal against Boston; Scott Mayfield will be looking to add to his new career-high in goals for a season after he set a new mark with his fifth of the year.

“Mayfield isn’t an offensive guy, but he has pretty good instincts for getting pucks through and finding lanes and waiting for traffic to develop in front,” Trotz said on Mayfield’s accomplishment. “That’s part of an offensive defenseman, but we rely on him for him to be an defensive defenseman.”

Mayfield continuing his strong play of late might go under the radar, but there are some other key elements to be watching for with the Isles this week. Here they are:

Continuation of pumping shots on net.

The Islanders offense might still be struggling, but you can’t say they haven’t tried to score goals at will during that stretch. Over the last five games, the Isles have averaged over 30 shots per game; their most coming last Tuesday when they threw 41 shots at Devils goalie MacKenzie Blackwood in a 4-3 overtime victory. Getting three games combined against the Rangers and the Wings — two of the top-ten teams in most shots on goal allowed this season — the Islanders will have the opportunity to keep up the high shot totals. It’s also worth noting, the more the Isles have been willing to shoot, the more it seems their luck has been turning.

Defensemen contributing to the offense.

As mentioned earlier, Scott Mayfield’s goal opened the scoring on Saturday night. It was a good sign for the Isles that they are getting help offensively from their blueline again. The common theme this season is that when the Isles’ D is activated and in attack mode, they are a very tough team to contain.  For example, Devon Toews’s two assists in the back-to-back wins on Monday and Tuesday were the catalyst for both Anders Lee’s game-winning goals. Rookie Noah Dobson’s secondary assist on Mayfield’s tally led to the Islanders’ first goal of the game. With the Islanders recently improved play at even strength, it should open up more opportunities for contributions from the back end.

Regaining momentum.

Ever since Trotz took over last season, the Islanders’ resiliency has never come into question. While it seemed to fade somewhat after the club’s historic point streak, that needed pushback has returned at the perfect time. In the last two games, the Islanders lost the lead or found themselves trailing by a goal, only to see them strike back in quick fashion. After Kyle Palmieri’s power play goal in New Jersey, it took the Isles just under three and a half minutes for Tom Kuhnhackl to score the equalizer and force overtime. The same thing took place Saturday night after the Bruins took a 2-1 lead on a fluky bounce early in the third. A few minutes later, Josh Bailey found a streaking Barzal who beat B’s goalie Tuukka Rask five-hole to even the score. Both those moments were huge and need to continue.

Monster weekend.

One way to follow up a home-and-home with your most heated rival, how about two straight days with division opponents who have you in their front and back mirror. Washington, who is still the top dog in the Metro, continues to be in striking distance for the Islanders. The Isles have split the season series so far losing their season home opener on home ice before holding for dear life in a 4-3 triumph on New Year’s Eve in D.C. When the Islanders head to Raleigh Sunday afternoon, it would be the first time the two teams have faced-off since the first week of the year. Carolina won that by a score of 5-2 in a game that showed the stark contrasts between the two clubs at that juncture. So much has changed since that October evening and it will be interesting to see what type of team the Isles will be.

Isles-Rangers back at the Coliseum.

The stakes don’t get any higher when the Isles and Blueshirts collide at the Nassau Coliseum. They’ve always been that way and will stay the same even when the Islanders head eight miles down the road to Belmont in a few years. That’s why Thursday night will again be special. Not just for the fact it’s the first time the teams have squared off on Coliseum ice in almost half a decade, or it’s the first time they’ve met all year, but because it will once evoke that passion/hatred the players and fans show for one another. It’s not to say the rivalry has been dead since the Isles have moved to Brooklyn — they only lost once there to the Rangers in four seasons — but the atmosphere just isn’t there. Hearing those back and forth roars of “Let’s Go Islanders!” and “Let’s Go Rangers!” will make for a wonderful scene.

Follow me on Twitter at @RTaub_

 

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